Rather than a white elephant, for the ODA McAslan designed a lean, rust-red monument of a power plant in Stratford, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Hufton + Crow
As a nation of heritage enthusiasts, Britain deserves the white elephants that have been foisted on it, notably by Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of London’s strangely popular Battersea Power Station. But white elephants were precisely what the ODA, development authority for the London 2012 Olympic Park, did not want, least of all in the case of the flagship energy centre designed by John McAslan + Partners to house the plant for its super-green but invisible district energy system, built, commissioned and substantially up and running in time for the Games’ opening ceremony last July. Although it seemed unlikely to enter the catalogue of six-week architectural wonders alongside pre-2012 Olympic sporting venues, the 50-year operational life of Scott’s behemoth was a reminder that McAslan’s design required adequate contingency provisions.
Like Lyall Bills & Young’s Stratford Box Pumping Station, also designed for the incipient Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, McAslan’s energy centre at King’s Yard and its scaled-down doppelgänger serving Stratford City and Westfield, raises questions about the limits of an architect’s remit. Process engineers and others were responsible for the strategic design of the CCHP and biomass plant housed by the energy centre, as well as its siting and the 35km underground district energy system it serves, which substantially underwrites the environmental performance credentials of the park’s sporting venues.
The strategy to use the energy centre as a huge heat exchanger converting return hot water to coolth, and the decisions to install one biomass boiler, with space provision for another, and to use gas rather than alternative fuels, which might have lowered CO2 emission, were not McAslan’s. Arup determined the centre’s volume, while the ODA imposed height and scale restrictions. These variables would have been the same, irrespective of the choice of architect.
McAslan’s expertise came into play in the design of the energy centre itself and its performance, working with the process engineer and Cofely East London Energy - which took a 40-year concession to operate the facility - to develop an organisational diagram for the energy centre. Above all other considerations, the ODA wanted it to be flexible and adaptable, enabling Cofely to augment, replace, reconfigure, upgrade and repair equipment, in addition to facilitating future changes of use in the volatile environment of British energy and infrastructure strategy. To these ends, McAslan’s design for the new building and its retrofit of the adjacent Edwardian structure, a former sweet factory, provides large spans and high ceilings.
The new building also has a modular steel structure and its principal facades have panels which can be removed to provide access for plant, with a surface layer of Cor-ten mesh to screen louvre and fenestration adaptations in the underlying weathering envelope, retaining its flush, uniform, monolithic appearance. Its high ceilings and precast floor design loadings broaden the options for changes of use and could accommodate mezzanines. This flexibility also meant architectural design and construction could proceed in parallel with plant procurement.
The energy centre’s detailed design and specification was also critical to its environmental performance. The recyclable Cor-ten mesh will age gracefully and endure. Aluminium, whose specification at the park was policed by the ODA because of embodied energy concerns, clads only the ground floor. The use of recycled and recyclable materials and waste minimisation provisions, which included co-ordinating EPDM roll widths with the sizes of the SIPs they are bonded to, is thoroughly documented in AJ sustainability editor Hattie Hartman’s London 2012 Sustainable Design (John Wiley & Sons). As Hartman observes, the post-Games strategy to use the facility as a community energy centre serving future developments, partly fuelled by local renewable resources, rather than transmitting energy from remote power plants, conserves energy. However, McAslan associate Aaran Pexton explains that the option of a green or brown roof was rejected because of concerns about plant access, adaptability and bird control.
Concern for the local community transcended energy supply. The energy centre’s pre-1989 Checkpoint Charlie locale will soon be transformed, becoming a new west entrance to the park. The former sweet factory will be reintegrated with the neighbourhood to the west, where future development is planned. It houses offices for Cofely as well as biomass plant. ‘It gets through an artic-load of wood chips every day,’ says Cofely design manager Stephan Budasz. The massive external masonry walls running the building’s length remain uninsulated, balanced by enhanced provision elsewhere.
Original timber trusses were retained, with strengthening steelwork, and all existing windows were replicated. It will also house an educational visitors’ centre, scheduled to open this summer. NORD’s sublime Primary Substation (AJS 11.09), with its tough, perforated black brickwork and Make’s rather more dour Copper Box, complete the energy centre’s context. ‘The main challenge was the industrial building typology,’ says McAslan design director Kevin Lloyd.
‘These buildings are usually aluminium boxes.’ The energy centre’s main volume is indeed a large, 18m-high rectangular box, but a filigree veil mitigates the raw geometry. Its Cor‑ten has heavy industrial nuances and evokes Stratford’s railway legacy. The energy centre’s programme also offered opportunities to elaborate on its sculptural qualities. A 45m-high flue tower counterbalancing the principal volume’s horizontal thrust casts the structure as an abstracted zoomorph, with a gaping head resembling Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion: on its rooftop, an array of plant like a stegosaurus’s dorsal scales and large, bendy, flange-coupled ducts like puffy black caterpillars; at its hindquarters, three 20m-high water tanks and a rhythmical flame-red escape staircase in heated chromatic dialogue with the mesh’s earthy hues.
An inclined, umbilical link bridge tows its Edwardian satellite and the glazed ground-level shop front reveals the complex processes within.
If you lamented the energy centre’s lack of human scale and wrote this off as big, nasty and opaque, you’d be missing the point. Like Scott’s power stations, or for that matter, like an ancient Greek temple or the Great Pyramid at Giza, this is a monument.
The mysterious, unpredictable forces of energy our lives ultimately depend on reside within. But it’s no memorial. McAslan’s energy centre has the gravitas of Battersea, without its reactionary bombast, stasis or intransigence; reverting to the heroic, dynamic optimism of Russian Constructivism, ennobling efficiency, utility and technology, with a raw, demountable aesthetic - the architectural equivalent of an El Lissitzky Proun. Observing the way its orange glow on a hazy Stratford skyline conjures up memories of northern mill towns, you might even call it post-post-industrial.